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8 December 2009

Anti-panto

The ethics of Christmas theatre programming

By Sam Kinchin-Smith

The publicity material for the Royal Court Liverpool’s Christmas production, Merry Ding Dong, a new play by Fred Lawless, includes the following, telling disclaimer: “This play contains strong language and is not suitable for bleedin’ kids who will spend the entire time running round the place, shouting, eating sweets and being sick. Merry Christmas.” Quite.

There’s nothing new about British theatres attempting to take the critical high ground in a season invariably defined by formulaic pantos and celebrity career-revival. In fact, theatrically-challenging, adult-pleasing and/or pantomime-inverting Christmas productions are now as common as the kind of traditional family entertainment that places like the Chipping Norton Theatre are famous for.

Consider the Times‘ “20 must-see Christmas shows”: I count only five “traditional” pantos. Even some of the shows on the list with familiar-sounding premises — Hansel and Gretel at the Bristol Old Vic, say, or Peter Pan at Newcastle’s Northern Stage — are self-consciously choosing to swerve away from pantomimic convention. The former, created by the very fashionable Kneehigh, describes itself as set in “a world that is sweet but never sugary”. Peter Pan aims to “rediscover the charm of the original story that has enchanted children for nearly 100 years”.

This is, of course, no bad thing. Viv Groskop potentially put it best in a piece she wrote for the New Statesman back in Christmas 2005: “I first saw Danny La Rue in Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal in Bath when I was eight years old and I knew a travesty when I saw it,” she shuddered. “Even at that age I was appalled that this passed for entertainment and that adults were encouraging us to laugh and enjoy it.”

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Her article was a bitter dissection of the way Ian McKellen and Simon Callow were post-ironically espousing panto as “the new cool”. It’s worth pointing this out, I think, because the Royal Court Liverpool would perhaps do well to bear in mind the example of Kevin Spacey’s three mid-noughties pantomimes at the Old Vic (the first two starring Sir Ian, the third written by Stephen Fry), which received criticism from various quarters for being middle-aged, luvvie affairs that, by tacitly discouraging children from attending, rather missed the point.

The pantomime season is the only time of the year that children under the age of ten are encouraged (or allowed) to actually visit a theatre — one thinks immediately of Brief Encounter, and the Jesson children’s famous complaint that “there aren’t any pantomimes in June”. So it seems to me rather curmudgeonly to programme a Christmas production that constitutes just another child-unfriendly occasion. Far more admirable, I’d suggest, to make Christmas theatre about introducing pre-teens on mandatory school trips to proper theatre — full of style, trickery and colour — in a manner that, who knows, might just encourage them to explore a different theatre space in June, even though there aren’t any pantomimes.

Happily, several Christmas 2009 productions are taking exactly this approach. The Edinburgh Fringe-conquering Fuel are behind The Forest at the Young Vic, a multimedia performance utilising 19 real trees that aims to take 5 to 7 year olds “somewhere unlike anywhere you’ve been”. And an innovative take on Cinderella, which premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith last Christmas and is playing at Warwick Arts Centre this winter, represents a compelling marriage of the Christmassy and the credible.

Like Northern’s Stage’s Peter Pan, this is a faithfully literary Cinderella: it is, save for a few minor deviations, a judicious adaptation of the Grimm brothers’ two-centuries-old tale, complete with heel amputation and Kill Bill-style eyeball plucking. This undoubtedly makes for some welcome relief in a children’s entertainment world populated by chastity ring-wearing high school kids and Mormon vampires. It’s elegantly written as well. “One . . . time,” begins a narrator, sidestepping the age-old opening line. “Cinderella dear, you really are so ostentatiously humble,” groans the wicked stepmother later on, drawing chuckles from the adults in the audience (and confused frowns from the little ones).

But the production is so particularly successful, I think, because of its theatrical sophistication. Performed by a cast of just six (and a musician), it tosses together dance, puppetry, live music, non-linear time structures and a relentlessly inventive approach to narrative in such a condensed way that it feels, at every turn, like a celebration of what theatre can do — and what its rivals, television, cinema and video-games, just can’t. Kids leave this Cinderella energised (yelling, indeed) about the theatre. That, I think, is what Christmas theatre-programming should be about.

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